Sunday, October 10, 2010

From newbie to board vet: Paving the way

How are new members welcomed to our nonprofit board? How do I go from being a rookie board member, with a general idea of what the mission means and how the agency's programs work toward it, to an active, engaged leader embracing my responsibility to advance it?

Those questions are on my mind these days, for two reasons. One, I'm on a brand new board development committee, collaborating with three peers to design a board recruitment and orientation process for our nonprofit. Two, I recently (re)joined the board of a local nonprofit, meaning I'm in that rookie place right now. In both settings, the question of what that process looks like and how the board welcoming the new member sets the tone and lights the path toward commitment and successful service is at the forefront.

I've written before about the centrality of the board as community of practice that emerged in my dissertation research. A core phenomenon of the COP, that I was unable to study at the same time, is legitimate peripheral participation (LPP), exactly the process I am simultaneously experiencing in one setting and helping to create in the other.

As I enter this new board member assignment, I have decided to treat it as essentially a case study. I want to take a more conscious role in reflecting on, recording, and owning how I go from committed but not particularly knowledgeable about the agency's current programs and needs to not only an active board member but a board leader. I'll be writing about the journey and sharing some insights here, in the spirit of prompting some sharing about how boards can be as effective as possible in facilitating an experience that benefits everyone. I hope you'll be open to sharing what's worked well for you and your boards, as well as those parts of the process that could be more user friendly.

In the other setting, we are making decisions about how we want to be more strategic about determining our governance needs, recruiting prospects who will help us meet those needs, welcoming them to the board, and providing them with the information and the tools to get off to a good start.

The overlap between the two experiences feels like a good one. As my peers and I develop the structure to ensure clarity about our needs and a process to immerse new members in the mission and in the inner workings of our board, I inevitably will be thinking about the information and community building needs that I experience in the other setting. What does it feel like to be that temporarily uninformed new member? What do I need to become part of the board team and to be an effiective, knowledgeable leader? How do I find my niche within the mix of skills and perspectives and leadership roles? As I begin to answer those questions as the newbie, I will be thinking about how we can ease and enrich the process of the recruits we welcome into the other board.

Both processes take a big step forward this week, as I attend a new member orientation for the local board and move the draft recruitment package to the committee for tweaking. I'll be reporting and reflecting on both processes here along the way. I hope readers will respond with their own recommendations and recollections about recruitment and orientation success stories and challenges. Together, I hope that we can develop a joint conversation to expand our collective understanding to make those processes as effective as possible.

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